As soon as we got our beer and wine license in 2015, we stocked our shelves with Ichinokura's Mukansa, one of the first dry sakes to hit the sake market in Japan - back in the 1970s. It remains an Umami Mart staff favorite to this day. Refreshingly crisp in the summer when chilled, and satisfyingly dry when warmed in the winter. It's a versatile sake that remains consistent in quality and price.
With the debut of our bottle shop, one of the first sake breweries to visit us was Ichinokura. It was Kazu who visited our Oakland store and introduced himself. It was an honor to have a sake brewery from Japan visit a nascent sake shop like us in the East Bay. We were already familiar with his sakes and were very excited to meet him and ask him about his brewery.
Since becoming fast friends with Kazu, we've worked together to kick off several of our Camino Sake Dinners with a big cask filled full of Ichinokura Junmai.
Kayoko, Ko-chan and Kazu at the Japanify All Day release party in February 2017
So when I was planning a trip to go to Hokkaido from Tokyo via shinkansen (bullet train) I grabbed the opportunity to ride through Sendai to visit the brewery. Ichinokura is actually about 45 minutes out from Sendai by local train in Osaki City. The station was tiny, and as soon as we stepped off the train, Kazu-san was waiting for us on the empty platform.
Off we went in his rental car (a white Toyota Yaris, my dream car), and drove down tiny rural roads.
In about 20 minutes, we arrived at to the Matsuyama Sake Museum, where there were some well-maintained sake exhibits.
The entrance to the sake museum featured lots of Ichinokura barrels.
The indoor entryway to the museum was quite dramatic.
Tools for sake-making on display.
We ate at the soba shop on site, that also served Sendai miso onigiri (riceballs).
The onigiri were the real reason why Kazu-san said he took us here (drooling emoji).
They also had ice cream made from Ichinokura sake lees!
As we ate, Kazu explained the history behind the brewery. Ichinokura formed in 1973, when big sake brewers were gobbling up the market, smaller brewers were in danger of going out of business. To survive in this cut-throat market, four smaller brewers in Osaki City banded together to create Ichinokura (Ace Brewery). To start on equal footing, the four agreed to build the brewery in a totally new location, instead of using one of their existing breweries.
The main part of the soba shop featured lots of Ichinokura sakes – many that are only released domestically.
We were back on the road and in about five minutes we reached the brewery.
The setting was beautiful.
They chose a spot with pristine well-water (duh!!!). That shack is where the source of the water is.
This is one of the larger sake breweries I've been to and it was interesting to see how they involve themselves in the community. In addition to operating the Matsuyama Sake Museum, they give back to the those who suffered during the 2011 Tohoku Disaster. They also hold Sake University once a year - where they open up the brewery to anyone for a week to help make sake. Kayoko and I hope to study at the university in 2021!
I took this photo to remember the information for Sake University:
Entrance to the main building.
The tasting corner.
The whole facility was a ghost town. Kazu explained to us that during the hot summer months they work on maintenance, as sake-making season is from fall to spring.
Spotless fermentation tanks.
Large storage tanks.
Kazu let us taste some of the pristine well-water.
Thank you Kazu for the tour of the brewery - we will be back in the winter, during sake-making season for Sake University!
Local tip: Kazu also has the best recommendations for onsen (hot springs)! We went to Naruko Onsen after the brewery visit, which was truly magical.
Photos do not do Naruko Onsen justice.
We will welcome Kazu on November 8th to our bar. He says he'll bring something special for us sake-lovers in Oakland. Stay tuned to our events page for the latest.